August 20th, 2017

Solar Eclipses and Citizen Science

As you’ve probably heard, a solar eclipse will be visible in the U.S. today from coast to coast. The PBS television program NOVA will air a special episode tonight including live footage of the eclipse, and talking about the history and scientific significance of solar eclipses. Back in April, a film crew visited Houghton in preparation for the episode to take a look at some historic eclipse images from the collection.

Edmond Halley is probably best remembered for his prediction of the return of the comet now named for him, but he made crucial contributions to the study of eclipses as well. In 1715, Halley published a map predicting the path of an eclipse passing over England with exceptional accuracy, a triumph for Newtonian physics.

Description of the passage of the shadow of the moon
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August 16th, 2017

A Real Old Devil

This post is part of an ongoing series featuring items from the exhibition Open House 75: Houghton Staff Select on display in the Edison and Newman Room from May 8 – August 19, 2017.

Refashioning, revising, re-reading, restoring: the adaptation of musical works was a perennial source of fascination for Harvard University music professor John Milton Ward. Consequently, the John Milton and Ruth Neils Ward Collection at the Harvard Theatre Collection is rich in editions, arrangements and translations. Evidence of these multiple versions can help us understand, quite precisely, how music was circulated and performed, heard and loved.

Consider Franz Lehár’s Die lustige Witwe, known in English as The Merry Widow. Since its Viennese premiere in 1905 it has never really been off the stage, traveling the world and usually getting translated into the local language once it arrives. There are scores and librettos of the work in the Ward collection that have English, French, Italian, Danish and Polish words.

Several parodic reinterpretations of the work may be found in the Ward collection as well. These mostly date from early-twentieth-century America. An excerpt from one of these parodies is the short and snappy tune, “Toot! Toot! I’m a Real Old Devil!,” purportedly sung by Walter Jones in The Merry Widow and the Devil, which was first performed in New York at the West End Theatre on November 16th, 1908.

Cover of "The Devil As Sung By Walter Jones", with image of devil leaning back in tilted chair in red top hat, coat, and tails.

M1508.G423.M4 1908b, The John Milton and Ruth Neils Ward Collection, 2004

Many libraries own copies of the commercial vocal score of The Merry Widow and Devil, but only the Harvard Theatre Collection is known to have this edition of this song. It was printed as a supplement to the December 13th, 1908 edition of the now-defunct Boston Sunday American and was intended to be cut out and sewn together to make a booklet. This is just what the unidentified former owner did, taking care to slice the page neatly from the newsprint sheet and using white thread to bind the score together. From the New York stage in November to a Boston home in December, eventually on to Professor Ward’s collection and then to this library as his gift, it is a small but unique specimen of the domestication of art.

Christina Linklater, Houghton Music Cataloger, contributed this post.

August 14th, 2017

Interpreting History Through Art: The Kelmscott Chaucer, William Morris

This post is part of an ongoing series featuring items from the exhibition Open House 75: Houghton Staff Select on display in the Edison and Newman Room from May 8 – August 19, 2017.

The iconic Kelmscott Chaucer—this copy being one of only three printed on vellum and bound in full pigskin—is the crowning achievement of William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones’ ventures into book production. As a practicing artist with a background in medieval studies, I’m fascinated by recreations of historical artistry. I held my breath when, in my first weeks on the job, one of the Kelmscott books found its way to my desk to be measured for a new box. Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to explore many Kelmscott books in Houghton’s collection: some on paper and some on vellum, some bound simply and others highly adorned, though none as breathtaking as The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer.

First page of the prologue to the Canterbury Tales.

The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer Now Newly Imprinted (London, 1896)
Typ 805K.96.274, Gift of Henry Arthur Jones, 1906

William Morris was an English artist and designer, and a major figure in the 19th century Arts and Crafts Movement. He was also an active socialist and an admirer of medieval art. He strove to bridge the divide between fine arts and crafts by creating beautiful, useful decorated objects. In 1891, he founded the Kelmscott Press, where he spent the last several years of his life producing illuminated-style printed books in high quality, limited editions.

In creating objects that look medieval, Morris made a statement on his own time period. His art is a reaction to industrial modes of production, which he decried as dehumanizing. Instead, he promoted an idealized vision of medieval craftsmanship. His love for the Middle Ages strikes me as curious, given the era’s reputation for ruthless hierarchy. On the other hand, these clashing interpretations remind me that no account of history can be objective or unbiased. All of us – historians included – bring our personal and cultural biases to the table when we interact with the past.

Morris’s business practices, though idealistic, are also mired in contradiction. He envisioned a socialist utopia in which everyone lived comfortably, and no one desired luxury. In his imagined future, beautiful objects such as the Kelmscott Chaucer would be owned by public institutions. In Morris’s reality, however, he depended on the wealthy to support his creative endeavors. Perhaps he wished that in the future, his works would find their way into public view, where they could be widely enjoyed. In this regard I fully agree with him; works of art have the greatest value when they can be used and admired by all.

Robin Harney, Library Assistant, contributed this post.

August 7th, 2017

A Curious Manuscript

This post is part of an ongoing series featuring items from the exhibition Open House 75: Houghton Staff Select on display in the Edison and Newman Room from May 8 – August 19, 2017.

Melesinda Munbee’s Miscellany found its way into my hands one day  in 2002 when I was browsing our stacks, looking for manuscripts to show to a class. This miscellany consists of  two handwritten volumes of poems inscribed in 1749 by a five-and-a-half-year-old girl and dedicated to her father, Valentine Munbee, who taught her how to write. That’s what the dedicatory poem says, and maybe that’s just what it is. But I was intrigued by it from the moment I opened up the first volume and read the title-page:


MS Eng 768 v. 1 A collection of various kinds of poetry : title-page.

That handwriting looked much too practiced and elegant for such a young girl. Keep reading →

July 31st, 2017

All power to the people! Black Panther Party

This post is part of an ongoing series featuring items from the exhibition Open House 75: Houghton Staff Select, on display in the Edison and Newman Room from May 8 – August 19, 2017.

In September of 1966, Hunters Point, a predominately black neighborhood in San Francisco, erupted after the murder of sixteen-year-old Matthew Johnson by police. The riots were a catalyzing event for activist Huey Newton, who realized that the black community and its anger, if properly channeled, could be a powerful instrument against police brutality and other forms of institutional racism. With fellow activist Bobby Seale, Newton formed The Black Panther Party with the intent to counteract (or even subvert) police violence through armed patrols by local citizens. Two years after its founding, new chapters opened in cities across the United States – from Boston to Seattle. As the organization grew, its mission expanded to embrace social programs, such as free breakfast for children and community health clinics – a point largely forgotten by the organization’s critics then and now.

Cover of The Black Panther commemorating Bobby James Hutton.

All images f AC95.B5665.969c.

Instrumental in spreading the party’s message was The Black Panther, a weekly newspaper that soon became its official voice. Keep reading →

July 24th, 2017

Hemingway’s Writing Makes a Different Sort of Mark


This post is part of an ongoing series featuring items from the exhibition Open House 75: Houghton Staff Select, on display in the Edison and Newman Room from May 8 – August 19, 2017.

I’ve consistently been fascinated by traces left behind by producers, owners, and readers of books in the Houghton Library collections. Most famously illustrated and explained in Roger Stoddard’s Marks in Books, these page-filling scrawls of early modern students and inky fingerprints of printers bring to life many of our volumes, and support a growing number of scholars making this evidence central to their research.

Other researchers in the reading room come to Houghton to study the writing process of a particular author. They interrogate the letters and manuscripts left behind to come up with theories about how and why they wrote a particular work, or what they meant by this or that scribble.

Early in my time at Houghton, I came upon a particularly interesting example of an item that brings these two areas of interest together that has stuck with me over the intervening years.

Toward the end of Ernest Hemingway’s life, while living in Cuba, he wrote a number of letters to Harvey Breit, a book reviewer and critic in New York. The two met in 1950 and connected and corresponded about topics of mutual interest, such as boxing, bullfighting, and fishing. These letters coincide with a last burst of Hemingway’s creative energy which brought The Old Man and the Sea to life.


Despite not being the biggest fan of Hemingway, I find this one particular letter from August 27, 1951 [MS Am 1791 (26)], to be a fascinating glimpse into a writer’s creative process. At one point Hemingway writes “The main problem with literature around here is to be at your best at 0630 when it is still cool and break off before the sweat spots ruin the pencil writing (around 1100) This makes literature seem simple!” He also makes sure to highlight the physical evidence in the paper, circling and labeling a yellowed sweat mark above. I like to imagine the bearded, shirtless Hemingway in the early morning Cuban sun, struggling to bring his thoughts to paper before they are rinsed away by the sweat of his brow.

Perhaps literature is just that simple.

James Capobianco, Reference Librarian, contributed this post.

July 17th, 2017

The Goddesses Among Us

jmw-90thbirthdaygregsmithdetailThis post is part of an ongoing series featuring items from the exhibition Open House 75: Houghton Staff Select, on display in the Edison and Newman Room from May 8 – August 19, 2017.

At the time of his death, Professor John M. Ward (the donor of our Ward Collection) was writing a book on the history of social dance, from the 16th century through Dirty Dancing. His research was painstaking, and he had been working on this project off and on for many years. With this in mind, many of his purchases reflected this interest, and one particular purchase was close to his heart: what locally we have come to call The Ward Manuscript. In honor of the professor, I’ve chosen this little manuscript volume for our current exhibit, Open House 75.

Table of contents, the Ward Manuscript

Table of contents for the Ward Manuscript, listing The goddesses as the first dance.

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July 13th, 2017

Collections Now Available for Research: July

Houghton Library is pleased to announce that the following collections now have descriptive finding aids and are available for research in the library’s reading room.

Alan Ansen Papers, circa 1938-2006 (MS Am 3104) – processed by Adrien Hilton

Duke Atteberry Joke Collection, 1920-1960 (MS Thr 1627) – processed by Melanie Wisner

Emerson Family Photographs and Miniatures, circa 1850-1880 (MS Am 2911) – processed by Susan Wyssen

Stephen B. Fassett Correspondence, 1954-1979 (MS Am 3133) – processed by Christina Davis, uploaded by Adrien Hilton

Richard F. Fuller papers, 1921-1949 (MS Am 3132) – processed by Ashley Nary

Werner Wilhelm Jaeger Papers, circa 1898-1970 (MS Ger 323) – processed by Daniel Ramseier, edited and uploaded by Adrien Hilton

José María Castañé Collection of Sergei Smirnov Photographs, circa 1944-1999 (MS Russ 136) – processed by Michael Austin and Irina Klyagin

Ludlow-Santo Domingo Collection of Lobby Cards, 1960s-1980s (MS Span 179) – processed by Elise Ramsey

Marsha Norman Papers, 1947-2011 (MS Thr 1613) – processed by Melanie Wisner

Jerry Schatzberg Papers, circa 1950-2016 (MS Am 3134) – processed by Melanie Wisner

Woodberry Poetry Room Collection of Painting and Drawings, 1954-1982 (MS Am 3120) – processed by Adrien Hilton

Fredric Woodbridge Wilson Collection of Costume Designs for Theater, Ballet and Opera, 1926-2001 (MS Thr 1628) – processed by Irina Klyagin

Fredric Woodbridge Wilson collection of Theater, Dance and Music, circa 1700-2009 (MS Thr 1559) – processed by Jen Lyons

July 10th, 2017

From Fan Mail to Farsi: How Fan Support Made A Book Relevant

This post is part of an ongoing series featuring items from the exhibition Open House 75: Houghton Staff Select on display in the Edison and Newman Room from May 8 – August 19, 2017.

Fan mail is not usually considered worthy of exhibition. In the Gore Vidal Papers, the letters of celebrities live amongst those of literary and political figures of the 20th century: Tennessee Williams, Susan Sarandon, Truman Capote, James Baldwin, Anaïs Nin, Elaine Dundy, Paul Bowles, Eleanor Roosevelt, George Plimpton, John F. Kennedy, and so many others. Because of these correspondents, Vidal’s archive has been called a “window to the 20th century” – so why fan mail for an exhibition?

Photograph of Gore Vidal in Guatemala, 1947.

Gore Vidal in 1947. MS Am 2350 (4319)

As soon as Gore Vidal (1925-2012) became a known writer, the fan mail began to pour in, especially after 1948 when he published his third novel, The City and the Pillar, significant because it is recognized as the first post-World War II novel with a gay protagonist portrayed in a sympathetic manner. It has been called one of the “definitive war-influenced gay novels,” being one of the few books of its period dealing directly with male homosexuality.

Cover sheet for the typescript to The City and The Pillar, with dedication "For the memory of J.T." and penciled in title and dates and places of composition.

Cover sheet to the typescript for The City and The Pillar, 1946. MS Am 2350 (2)

But the critical acclaim was not immediate. Even though it was among the few “gay novels” reprinted in inexpensive paperback form as early as the 1950s, The New York Times would not advertise it. Vidal was practically blacklisted after the book’s publication, to the extent that no major newspaper or magazine would review any of his novels for six years. This forced him to write several subsequent books under pseudonyms, such as Edgar Box. He would later resume using his true name with bestsellers such as Burr (1973) and Lincoln (1984), and publishing countless essays in publications such as Esquire, The New York Review of Books, and Playboy. But all the while, as evidenced by his fan mail, The City and The Pillar built a following despite its critical fallout.

Numerous examples of this fan mail are published in Vidal’s book, Snapshots in History’s Glare . “[F]or the first time, I have found a character…to whom I find myself similar,” wrote one. “As a homosexual, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart,” wrote another. The academic and pioneer sex researcher Alfred Kinsey thanked Mr. Vidal for his “work in the field.”

And finally the letter I chose for the Houghton 75th anniversary exhibition, whose South African author wrote, “I cannot tell you how much it meant to me…”

Fan letter to Gore Vidal, dated 31st July, 1950

MS Am 2350 (2)

They were not alone. The book, among others, was chipping away at the walls holding back gay writers and other disenfranchised communities. It was evidence to publishers that there was a market for such work, as it sold very well. But it was also simply an inspired novel about the human experience, a great Bildungsroman.

The City and the Pillar has been published in countless editions in over 30 languages, and is still in print today. It continues to spread to new cultures, and to evolve. Most recently, it was translated into Farsi and Turkish in 2005 and 2008. In 1965, Vidal released an updated version of the novel titled The City and the Pillar Revised. (While most modern printings contain the updated text, they retain the original title The City and the Pillar.) But its success would not have been possible without the support of fans with whom Vidal struck a very personal chord.

Jennifer Lyons, Manuscript Cataloger, contributed this post.

July 6th, 2017

A century of John Milton Ward

Today, John Milton Ward, the donor of the Harvard Theatre Collection’s Ward Collection, would have been 100 years old. Having spent most of my formative Harvard years working with him, I’d like to take a moment to share some thoughts on this auspicious occasion. I began working for John Ward in 2002, so his professor and musicologist personas were mostly behind him (though he never altogether shed his role as teacher). He studied composition privately with Darius Milhaud and studied musicology at the University of Washington (M.M. 1942), Columbia University, and New York University (Ph.D., 1953, The Vihuela de mano and its Music). The professors he mentioned most often to me were the Renaissance scholars Otto Gombosi and Gustave Reese, and musicologist Curt Sachs. From 1947 to 1953 Ward was an instructor at Michigan State University and from 1953 to 1955 an assistant and then an associate professor at the University of Illinois. In 1955 he joined the faculty of Harvard University, where he became William Powell Mason Professor of Music in 1961.

John Ward in 1940, with Eileen McCall, a music professor at San Francisco State College.

John Ward in 1940, with Eileen McCall, a music professor at San Francisco State College.

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